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Featured Story

Sex Ed-What Is and What Should Be: Teens deserve all the available information
image by YC
Sex Ed: What Is and What Should Be
Teens deserve all the available information

Linda Lausell Bryant is the executive director of Inwood House, a youth development agency that serves 2,500 middle school and high school students in New York City and New Jersey. It has programs for pregnant and parenting teens, including a pregnancy prevention program called Teen Choice. Before Inwood House, Lausell Bryant worked as Associate Commissioner for New York City’s Administration for Children's Services, where she focused on adolescents.

Lausell Bryant talked to Represent about the sex education programs in Inwood House and what good sex education looks like for everyone, including kids who’ve suffered sexual abuse.

Q: What do you think is good sex ed policy?

A: Information should be complete and up-to-date. Some people honestly believe that if you give kids all the facts of life, it’ll make them go out and have sex. They support abstinence-only education, which means teachers are telling kids just don’t have sex until you’re married, period.

I disagree. I think that if you know everything about sex, the pros, the cons, the risks, you’ll make more informed decisions. Research shows that kids who get medically accurate information tend to delay having sex longer than kids who get only abstinence-only sex education.

If you know more, you are more prepared to wait. My guess is that’s because you feel more respected. The adults gave it to you straight and let you make a more informed decision.

Q: What’s the right age to teach kids about sex?

A: As soon as they’re old enough to ask. You’re going to answer according to their age. At 5 or 6 when my daughter asked where babies came from, I explained that just like trees and plants grow from seeds, well, there’s a mommy seed and a daddy seed in people too.

OK, then she asks again when she’s 12, and now she does know a little about sex. So I have to tell her the truth. I want her to know everything she can know, because I’m not going to be there when she has to make that decision. You don’t have to be ignorant to be innocent.

It is a normal part of a kid’s development to wonder about sex. So you want to help the child be comfortable. You don’t want to communicate that sex is a dirty secret that they’ll find out when they get older. They know they have bodies, they explore their own bodies, and you don’t want to make them feel there’s something wrong or perverted or dirty. It’s part of who they are.

What’s the age for a formal sex ed curriculum? I’d say as early as fifth grade. You don’t have to wait till high school. Kids are exposed to so much at an earlier age now. They use computers, they see things online and on TV and movies. They hear Rhianna’s song Rude Boy and ask, “What does that mean ‘Can you get it up?’” They’re gonna ask, and so who’s going to give them the honest, right answer?

Q: What sort of sex ed do you teach at Inwood House?

A: We use the Teen Choice program in all our programs, including our teen mothers program. Partly to keep them from having a second child, but also some of the young women who are pregnant aren’t sure how that happened.

But we focus on other issues besides just information. It’s not enough to say, “This is a sperm and this is an egg.” Teen Choice deals with all the pressures that keep girls from doing what they want. We address things girls say, like, “I didn’t really want to do this, but he wanted me to” or “My mother wanted me to have a baby.”

Q: How is Teen Choice different from what the law requires be taught?

A: For the last eight years, there has only been federal money for abstinence-only sex education. In other words, no sex education funding from the federal government. New York state didn’t take the money. But in other states, they were doing things like the virginity pledge, and they found that kids were keeping the promise technically while having anal sex and oral sex. And the kids weren’t aware that they could get STDs from that because they didn’t get the information in school.

But President Obama just changed the law on the funding of sex ed in schools; now it doesn’t have to be abstinence-only. Obama has sent out requests for new ideas for programs that prevent teen pregnancy. He says programs must be based on medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education. Abstinence is included; it’ll say the best way not to get pregnant or an STD is to not have sex, but it’s not the only thing. We’re applying for our Teen Choice model to be adopted as the national standard.

Q: Could sex ed be taught in a way that makes sex seem more normal?

A: Yes! Sex is normal. We are human, physical, sexual, beings as well as intellectual, emotional, and spiritual beings. We were equipped with sexual parts and sexual feelings.

The real question is how does that get managed? We’re eating beings, we treat that as normal, but you have to manage that. If you don’t manage that, you’ll have problems—be 500 pounds, have an eating disorder. It’s the same as sexuality. “I have those feelings, what do I do with that? Do I touch myself in class?”

If you learn sexuality as something normal, not something wrong with you, then you can learn to manage it. We all need to treat it as something normal, but we make it so forbidden. It becomes either too important, so it’s all you can think about because you can’t talk about it, or you just never learn to deal with it, and that can lead to young people just doing what someone else wants.

Q: Given the high rates of sexual abuse among foster kids, should sex ed take those issues into account?

A: It should. And even outside foster care, somewhere between 20 and 35 percent of children are sexually abused in this country. It’s a staggering number. You have to assume that someone in the room has been through that. The curriculum should address the fact that anyone in the room could have been abused.

Q: How would you be sensitive to the kids who’ve been abused?

A: I think you should point out the high rates of abuse in this country. In Inwood House, we have teenage girls who that happened to and now they’re pregnant and why? Because he wanted it. Where was the girl’s voice? But that’s one of the impacts of sexual abuse: You don’t feel like you have control to say yes or no. . .

[read more]


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